Dr. Kaixuan Liu shares his “Do this, but not that” list to follow after spine surgery
Almost every type of surgery comes with a list of instructions for what you should or should not do afterward. But when it comes to spine surgery, following those dos and don’ts are vital for ensuring a smooth and successful recovery, say Endoscopic Spine Surgeon Kaixuan Liu, MD, PhD.
According to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, about 500,000 Americans undergo surgery each year for lower back problems alone. Adding operations on the middle and upper spine raises this number closer to 1 million, meaning a sizable proportion of people in the United States decide to have spine surgery each year to alleviate chronic or acute back problems, Dr. Liu points out.
Spine procedures range from spinal fusion – the most common type – to discectomy, foraminotomy, laminectomy and others. But regardless of type, patients should consciously plan for how they will approach activities afterward.
“It makes sense that patients who’ve turned to spine surgery would want to maximize their outcomes, reducing pain and improving their overall recovery,” Dr. Liu says. “Just as any surgical patients are given written discharge instructions along with prescriptions for pain medication or physical therapy, spine surgery patients should know the dos and don’ts for their operation’s aftermath to pave their way back to normal living.”
Normal post-surgical pain stops many patients from charging ahead just afterward. But some need a reminder of what not to do after spine surgery, especially if they’ve undergone a minimally invasive procedure and their postoperative pain is minimal, Dr. Liu says.
In the days just after spine surgery, he recommends patients avoid:
- Climbing stairs: If you need to scale the stairs to get to your bedroom, that should be fine once or twice a day. “But don’t overdo it for the first few weeks,” Dr. Liu adds.
- Lifting heavy weights: A gallon of milk is the heaviest item (or equivalent) you should be lifting in the weeks after surgery. “Don’t lift items over 10 pounds, including grocery bags, laundry baskets or children,” he advises, “and don’t lift items over your head if you’ve had spinal fusion until your doctor OKs it.”
- Driving: If you’ve had invasive spine surgery, it’s advised to let someone else do the driving for the first two weeks, and limit passenger time to short distances. Same day driving is permissible for patients with minimally invasive procedures, but not recommended for more than 30 minutes at a time.
- Exercising: Walking is fine, even encouraged. But don’t swim, run, golf or do other strenuous exercise until your doctor gives the green light.
- Bending at the waist: Bend at the knees and squat to pick up items to avoid strain on your back muscles.
- Smoking: It’s never a good idea but smoking cigarettes or using other tobacco products can also slow healing after surgery.
One big problem Dr. Liu sometimes notices in spine surgery patients is impatience, which compels some to do more than they should, more quickly. “Depending on the procedure you had, recovering from spine surgery can take somewhere between a few weeks and a few months,” he explains. “But it can’t be rushed – and in fact, doing so can significantly set your recovery back. Resist the urge.”
- It’s more upbeat, of course, to focus on what you are allowed to do after spine surgery – especially when the list of dos can potentially help speed your recovery. Dr. Liu advises these measures:
- Keep moving: Walking and other regular, gentle movement speeds healing by keeping blood circulating through your body.
- Take pain medication: Don’t feel you have to grit your teeth and bear post-operative pain. “By all means, take the recommended dosage of any pain medications your doctor prescribes to help you through the days after surgery,” Dr. Liu says. “It’s much better to stay on top of pain than let it break through.”
- Do physical therapy: This important tactic teaches you to move and do things in a way that keeps your back in a safe position and minimizes pain. “You may learn the safest ways to dress, get out of bed or a chair, or eventually lift and carry things,” he explains.
- Wear a brace: Not everyone will need a back brace after spine surgery. But if your doctor prescribes one, Dr. Liu says, wearing it while sitting, walking, and doing other activities can help stabilize your back as it heals.
- Sleep with support: If you’re a side-sleeper, you may want to wedge a pillow between your knees or behind you to support your back while you sleep. “Good-quality sleep is vital for healing,” Dr. Liu says, “so do whatever you can to maximize your comfort.”
- Call your doctor with any questions: Recovering from spine surgery can bring moments of uncertainty or feeling like you’re backsliding. If that happens, don’t hesitate to reach out to your doctor.